This is a story of a place, of joy and regret, and of a deed so romantic and so rare as to border on the fantastical.

In the early fall of 1955, my father, a physician who had just completed an internship and a year of residency in family practice, moved our growing family from Pennsylvania to Boonville, North Carolina.  The town desperately needed a doctor and had offered my father help in several ways to entice him to move south.  At that time I was six months past my fourth birthday, the oldest of what would eventually be six children, and I can remember waking at dawn in Boonville after our all-night drive, sitting up, breathing in a wonderfully strange scent of unfamiliar flowers and fields, and staring at the house we would rent while my grandfather, a carpenter, built a home for us.

By the time I was six, that home was finished, standing on six acres within a short walk of the small town, and I entered a magical part of my life.  For the next seven years my siblings, my friends, and I spent our summers exploring the woods around the house, walking or riding our bikes through the town, and playing during inclement weather in the large playroom in the basement of the house.  In the summers we played roll-the-bat and badminton on the lawn beside the house, fought out the Civil War in the woods behind the house, and roamed the “Black Forest,” a large stand of pines running into yet more woods.  We watched movies at the theater uptown or in neighboring Elkin, and brought them to life in the backyard, becoming Norsemen after watching Kirk Douglas in The Vikings, whalers after seeing Gregory Peck in Moby Dick, and cowboys every time we saw another John Wayne movie.  We gathered dead flowers from the nearby cemetery and conducted funerals on our flagstone patio; we collected a menagerie of critters and pets, including a copperhead that wouldn’t eat and eventually died; we painted our faces with pokeberries and became Cherokees, whooping through the woods to the little stream at the foot of the hill.

The interior of the house provided its own magic.  In the playroom we reenacted Pickett’s Charge with our toy soldiers, traded baseball cards, and conducted malodorous experiments using the chemistry set I received one Christmas.  Here we watched television in the evenings—one episode of Thriller sent my sister and me sprinting for safety up the stairs—and wrestled and camped out with our cousins when they visited.  Upstairs was the living room with its u-shaped overhang of recessed lighting and the wall-sized glass that my mother called a “picture window.”  In this room she listened to her favorite musicals on the stereo or played the grand piano.  The kitchen, which doubled as the dining room, seemed always filled with the smells of cooking.  Balanced on a string running across the kitchen was Prince Rupert, a wooden figure on a wheel who would roll from one side of the room to the other over our heads whenever the string was pulled.

To an outsider, Boonville surely seemed a sleepy little crossroads, but for me it was a place of high adventure.  Weatherwax Pharmacy sold Classic Comics, candy, and gimmicks like itching powder and chattering teeth.  Other businesses that served as touchstones of my adolescence were the three grocery stores, the two barber shops, the movie theater, a bank, and two dry-goods stores whose ancient exteriors brought to mind those dusty buildings found in movies of the Old West.  There was a Methodist church and a Baptist church, a funeral home, a cemetery, a weekly bookmobile that actually parked in our driveway, and the school, which for nearly everyone, young and old, was the soul of the town.  All of these places provided the stage on which I played out my adventures.

And then, after living in that house for seven years, my father moved our family and his medical practice into the nearby city of Winston-Salem.  My parents sold the house, and our ties with Boonville seemed severed forever.

Exactly 50 years have now passed since we left that little town, yet the Boonville of my childhood has remained vividly alive in my memory.  Adolescence for many people, the lucky ones, can be a time of enchantment, and I was doubly blessed in that both the time and the place cast such a cordial spell over me.  Even my father, a wandering man who moved his medical practice seven times in 30 years, concedes now that he made a mistake in leaving what a friend, referencing J.R.R. Tolkien, only half-jokingly calls “The Shire.”

It was this same friend who called this past spring to tell me that the house was up for sale.  His aunt and uncle were the owners, and I had asked him years before to tell me if they ever put the house on the market.  At this point in my life, wishing to be free of the responsibilities of homeownership, I had no interest in buying a house or in returning to Boonville, but I told him I would pass the word along to my siblings.

And this is where the magic and charms of place and memory come into play.  My sister, a romantic at heart who was living near me in Asheville, North Carolina, having moved from her townhouse in Florida the previous year to be closer to her siblings, became instantly enamored with the prospect of returning to Boonville.  She visited the property, and finding it well kept, set to work feverishly to arrange the financing.  After she had pulled enough strings to set an entire cast of marionettes jumping, she owned the property.

And so, one rainy day in May, my sister moved her belongings into the home built by our grandfather.

Two months later, I had the opportunity to visit her.  To return to that home, to sleep in the room where my brother and I slept 50 years ago, to walk through the spacious living room with its paneled walls, picture window, and large fireplace, to run my fingers across the inscription burned into a wooden wall by my brother in the workroom downstairs, to roam the property where we played as children—nearly every square foot of that house launched in me a flotilla of memories.

On my first evening visiting Penelope, we sat at the table in the kitchen, talking and watching the twilight creep across the flagstone patio.  I cannot recall much that we said—doubtless most of it had to do with plans for working on the yard—but I do recollect that about every ten minutes I would punctuate the conversation with the words “I can’t believe I’m here.”  It was one of the more surreal evenings of my life.  I could feel my mother, dead these 20 years now, working at the stove behind me and asking me to set the table.  I could see my brother Doug and myself running down to the barn to feed the horses and then racing back to the house to be on time for supper.  I could hear the stereo playing “Bali Hai” from South Pacific and the sound of the dinner bell on the patio, used by my mother to summon us from play.

Thomas Wolfe made famous the adage “You can’t go home again,” and it is true that time has wrought many changes in Boonville.  The town long ago lost its high school to consolidation; the bank and the elementary school, two imposing brick landmarks, have been torn down; the movie theater is now a combination framing shop, art gallery, and tanning salon.  The original six acres bought by my father have been reduced to three; the Black Forest has given way to a paved road and large houses, and the back pasture has another two houses on it.  The remaining woods have thickened, grown denser with undergrowth, absent the trampling and play of children.

Yet enough remains unchanged both on the property and in the town to summon my past and to contemplate firsthand the importance of place in my life and in the lives of my fellow citizens.  All too frequently we fail to appreciate the effect of our physical surroundings on our daily lives.  We recognize that as human beings we are rivers fed and shaped by a multitude of streams—our genetic makeup, our parents, our friends, the culture, particularly the technology in which we are so deeply embedded nowadays—yet how often do we credit as factors in our development the physical sensations which bump and rub us every day of our waking lives, the landscapes we inhabit, the rooms in which we dwell, the clothing we wear, and the utensils we touch?

We are creatures of our senses, particularly sharp when we are children, and, in my case, this particular place—the whippoorwills and cicadas I heard at night, the odor of mown grass after a rain, the green forest in which I played at being a soldier, the thousand physical objects that I daily touched, saw, tasted, heard, smelled—shaped the boy and helped build the man.  We are all creations of the created; we are all molded in part by those extraordinary things—a shaft of sunlight on a bedspread on a winter’s day, the smell of brewing coffee, scraps of voices and song—which are so ordinary, so much a part of our lives, that they are invisible to us.  The girl who comes of age in a dingy Harlem apartment surrounded by concrete and brick, the boy who spends his adolescence on a Dakota farm awash in a sea of grass and wheat: Like me, like everyone, they are touched, for better or for worse, by the place called home.

Like Wolfe, I know that I can’t literally reconstruct the past.  But the rare and valiant act of my sister has provided her family—her own two grown children, her siblings and their children—the opportunity to call into being new memories in the house built by my grandfather, on the property cleared and worked by my father, in the home brought into being by my mother.  This Thanksgiving, when we gather in Boonville, we will remember them and honor them for what they gave us.

A place.  Bountiful memories.  A home.